Author: Ryan Whitwam ExtremeTechExtremeTech
Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired on TV more than 30 years ago, but it’s held up remarkably well. For myself and many other sci-fi fans, the exploits of the Enterprise-D were part of our formative years. I will always love this series, and I also love mechanical keyboards. So, why not combine my loves? That’s how I ended up with this LCARS keyboard. Here’s how I built it.
Most of my keyboard projects are inspired by a particular keyboard kit or keyset, and this one is thanks to an official re-release of the Star Trek-themed keyset called DSA Galaxy Class. The colors come from the LCARS interface designed for The Next Generation and subsequently used in Deep Space Nine and Voyager. LCARS was created under the direction of Gene Roddenberry, who wanted the Enterprise-D to look so advanced that its screens would be simple and clean.
DSA Galaxy Class uses the same pastel color palette as the original LCARS screens, as well as the Star Trek “Swiss911” fonts. It also has custom legends from the show like “Eject Core” and “Engage.” This set originally ran several years back without an official Star Trek branding, but designer Ryan Norbauer worked with the Roddenberry Shop to make an officially licensed version for the 30th anniversary. The difference this time is the set comes in a snazzy box and includes novelty caps with Star Trek insignia. For a Star Trek fan, this set is truly drool-worthy.
I wasn’t content to just slap those glorious keycaps on any old board and call it a day. After pre-ordering the caps, I had many months of waiting ahead of me. So, I kept an eye out for new keyboard kits that had the right look — like the CA66 you see in the photos. This is a 65 percent keyboard, which is my preferred layout. More importantly, it has large, rounded bezels that look a bit like the computer consoles on the show.
Choosing the switches was a challenge. All the LCARS computers on the show are touch screens, so I didn’t want a switch that sounded too mechanical. Even non-clicky switches (like my favorite Zealio switches) tend to make a racket, so I used this as an opportunity to try a new-ish Zealio variant called Zilents (67g weight). These tactile switches have small rubber bumpers inside on the slider that dampen the noise of the switch. They feel otherwise just like Zealios.
Set designers got to work on the Enterprise-D in the late 1980s, so it has an…unusual aesthetic. The entire inside of the ship is tan. It’s a very distinctive look, and one not replicated in the later series. You’re also not likely to find a lot of keyboard cases in “Enterprise tan.”
The CA66 kit I ordered came with a raw silver aluminum case. I chose this because I knew I would have to change the color anyway. I reached out to Ryan Norbauer, who created a limited edition tan-colored tenkeyless keyboard case to go along with the Galaxy Class keyset. With his assistance, I was able to have a local custom paint shop powder coat the CA66 case. The powder coat has a mild texture to make the board a little more visually interesting, and it’s the perfect Enterprise color.
I also employed my middling design skills to create several “GNDN” labels for the board. You’ve probably seen these red labels floating around in the Star Trek universe. GNDN stands for “goes nowhere, does nothing” because they’re just there to make things look science-fiction-y. To replicate the iconic look of these warning labels, I had my creations printed by a few different vendors to test various materials. The most prominent GNDN sticker is on the top bezel of the board, identifying the keyboard as “LCARS TERMINAL 3823.04-1.”
Building and programming
It took several months of planning, research, and waiting to get all the parts, but I was finally ready to build the keyboard in June 2018. The CA66 has the perfect look for this project, but it’s a bit lacking in hardware features. For example, the plate doesn’t support removing switch tops. That makes repair and maintenance harder. I knew I needed to be extra careful in building this one, so I took my time.
The first step is almost always to add stabilizers to the PCB. These wires keep long keys like space and enter level as you press them. Most boards use PCB-mounted stabilizers, and those must be plugged in before you solder any switches. If you forget, you have to disassemble the entire keyboard and start over. Desoldering is also vastly harder than soldering in the first place.
Next, I plugged the switches into the plate and estimated the spacing. Lining the PCB up with the switches is a pain, but only then can you confirm they’re in the right place. I used keycaps to confirm the switches were in the right locations since the PCB supports several different layouts. Then, I locked everything in by soldering the four corner switches and one in the middle. I briefly plugged the PCB into my computer to make sure those switches worked. Everything looked good, so I carried on soldering. This layout has 66 switches, and each of those has two pins. So, that was 132 total solder points. Each one takes just a few seconds — any longer than that and you risk damaging the hardware.
The CA66 connects over USB Type-C, but the shape of the case requires the port to be on a small breakout board that links with the PCB via a ribbon cable. I mistakenly left the mounting screws in the case when it was painted. Luckily, I was able to get all three out without stripping them (that’s why they too are tan). After mounting the plate/PCB inside the case, I plugged in the USB cable and sealed it up.
Programming the CA66 was easy enough. It runs the TMK firmware, which I don’t enjoy as much as newer options like QMK. It’s a little limited, but there’s an online visual editor. That editor, however, is mostly in Chinese. Google Translate is necessary here. The desktop application for flashing a new layout is also in Chinese. Luckily, there are only a few buttons, so I was able to figure it out.
After adding the Galaxy Class keycaps and GNDN stickers, I’m extremely happy with the Star Trek aesthetic. I think this keyboard would look totally at home on the Enterprise.
I also quite like it as a keyboard, too. This is the first time I’ve been able to use Zilent switches installed in a keyboard. They have the same robust tactile bump from Zealios with the addition of a quieter bottom out. This is a better solution than o-rings, which reduce travel and feel too mushy.
It took a long time to get this project finished, but it was worth it. After I finished this build, the manufacturer announced a new production round for later this year. This time, it’ll include an option for Bluetooth support on the PCB. I might pick up the new PCB to upgrade this keyboard. After all, wireless seems more futuristic, right?